The first words give all the date we have of this story. It was in the days when the judges ruled (Ruth 1:1), not in those disorderly times when there was no king in Israel; but under which of the judges these things happened we are not told, and the conjectures of the learned are very uncertain. It must have been towards the beginning of the judges’ time, for Boaz, who married Ruth, was born of Rahab, who received the spies in Joshua’s time. Some think it was in the days of Ehud, others of Deborah; the learned bishop Patrick inclines to think it was in the days of Gideon, because in his days only we read of a famine by the Midianites’ invasion, Jdg. 6:3, 4. While the judges were ruling, some one city and some another, Providence takes particular cognizance of Bethlehem, and has an eye to a King, to Messiah himself, who should descend from two Gentile mothers, Rahab and Ruth. Here is,
I. A famine in the land, in the land of Canaan, that land flowing with milk and honey. This was one of the judgments which God had threatened to bring upon them for their sins, Lev. 26:19, 20. He has many arrows in his quiver. In the days of the judges they were oppressed by their enemies; and, when by that judgment they were not reformed, God tried this, for when he judges he will overcome. When the land had rest, yet it had not plenty; even in Bethlehem, which signifies the house of bread, there was scarcity. A fruitful land is turned into barrenness, to correct and restrain the luxury and wantonness of those that dwell therein.
II. An account of one particular family distressed in the famine; it is that of Elimelech. His name signifies my God a king, agreeable to the state of Israel when the judges ruled, for the Lord was their King, and comfortable to him and his family in their affliction, that God was theirs and that he reigns for ever. His wife was Naomi, which signifies my amiable or pleasant one. But his sons’ names were Mahlon and Chilion, sickness and consumption, perhaps because weakly children, and not likely to be long-lived. Such are the productions of our pleasant things, weak and infirm, fading and dying.
III. The removal of this family from Bethlehem into the country of Moab on the other side Jordan, for subsistence, because of the famine, Ruth 1:1, 2. It seems there was plenty in the country of Moab when there was scarcity of bread in the land of Israel. Common gifts of providence are often bestowed in greater plenty upon those that are strangers to God than upon those that know and worship him. Moab is at ease from his youth, while Israel is emptied from vessel to vessel (Jer. 48:11), not because God loves Moabites better, but because they have their portion in this life. Thither Elimelech goes, not to settle for ever, but to sojourn for a time, during the dearth, as Abraham, on a similar occasion, went into Egypt, and Isaac into the land of the Philistines. Now here, 1. Elimelech’s care to provide for his family, and his taking his wife and children with him, were without doubt commendable. If any provide not for his own, he hath denied the faith, 1 Tim. 5:8. When he was in his straits he did not forsake his house, go seek his fortune himself, and leave his wife and children to shift for their own maintenance; but, as became a tender husband and a loving father, where he went he took them with him, not as the ostrich, Job 39:16. But, 2. I see not how his removal into the country of Moab, upon this occasion, could be justified. Abraham and Isaac were only sojourners in Canaan, and it was agreeable to their condition to remove; but the seed of Israel were now fixed, and ought not to remove into the territories of the heathen. What reason had Elimelech to go more than any of his neighbours? If by any ill husbandry he had wasted his patrimony, and sold his land or mortgaged it (as it should seem, Ruth 4:3, 4), which brought him in to a more necessitous condition than others, the law of God would have obliged his neighbours to relieve him (Lev. 25:35); but that was not his case, for he went out full, Ruth 1:21. By those who tarried at home it appears that the famine was not so extreme but that there was sufficient to keep life and soul together; and his charge was but small, only two sons. But if he could not be content with the short allowance that his neighbours took up with, and in the day of famine could not be satisfied unless he kept as plentiful a table as he had done formerly, if he could not live in hope that there would come years of plenty again in due time, or could not with patience wait for those years, it was his fault, and he did by it dishonour God and the good land he had given them, weaken the hands of his brethren, with whom he should have been willing to take his lot, and set an ill example to others. If all should do as he did Canaan would be dispeopled. Note, It is an evidence of a discontented, distrustful, unstable spirit, to be weary of the place in which God hath set us, and to be for leaving it immediately whenever we meet with any uneasiness or inconvenience in it. It is folly to think of escaping that cross which, being laid in our way, we ought to take up. It is our wisdom to make the best of that which is, for it is seldom that changing our place is mending it. Or, if he would remove, why to the country of Moab? If he had made enquiry, it is probable he would have found plenty in some of the tribes of Israel, those, for instance, on the other side Jordan, that bordered on the land of Moab; if he had had that zeal for God and his worship, and that affection for his brethren which became an Israelite, he would not have persuaded himself so easily to go and sojourn among Moabites.
IV. The marriage of his two sons to two of the daughters of Moab after his death, Ruth 1:4. All agree that this was ill done. The Chaldee says, They transgressed the decree of the word of the Lord in taking strange wives. If they would not stay unmarried till their return to the land of Israel, they were not so far off but that they might have fetched themselves wives thence. Little did Elimelech think, when he went to sojourn in Moab, that ever his sons would thus join in affinity with Moabites. But those that bring young people into bad acquaintance, and take them out of the way of public ordinances, though they may think them well-principled and armed against temptation, know not what they do, nor what will be the end thereof. It does not appear that the women they married were proselyted to the Jewish religion, for Orpah is said to return to her gods (Ruth 1:15); the gods of Moab were hers still. It is a groundless tradition of the Jews that Ruth was the daughter of Eglon king of Moab, yet the Chaldee paraphrast inserts it; but this and their other tradition, which he inserts likewise, cannot agree, that Boaz who married Ruth was the same with Ibzan, who judged Israel 200 years after Eglon’s death, Jdg. 12:8-10
V. The death of Elimelech and his two sons, and the disconsolate condition Naomi was thereby reduced to. Her husband died (Ruth 1:3) and her two sons (Ruth 1:5) soon after their marriage, and the Chaldee says, Their days were shortened, because they transgressed the law in marrying strange wives. See here, 1. That wherever we go we cannot out-run death, whose fatal arrows fly in all places. 2. That we cannot expect to prosper when we go out of the way of our duty. He that will save his life by any indirect course shall lose it. 3. That death, when it comes into a family, often makes breach upon breach. One is taken away to prepare another to follow soon after; one is taken away, and that affliction is not duly improved, and therefore God sends another of the same kind. When Naomi had lost her husband she took so much the more complacency and put so much the more confidence in her sons. Under the shadow of these surviving comforts she thinks she shall live among the heathen, and exceedingly glad she was of these gourds; but behold they wither presently, green and growing up in the morning, cut down and dried up before night, buried soon after they were married, for neither of them left any children. So uncertain and transient are all our enjoyments here. It is therefore our wisdom to make sure of those comforts that will be made sure and of which death cannot rob us. But how desolate was the condition, and how disconsolate the spirit, of poor Naomi, when the woman was left of her two sons and her husband! When these two things, loss of children and widowhood, come upon her in a moment, come upon her in their perfection, by whom shall she be comforted? Isa. 47:9; 51:19. It is God alone who has wherewithal to comfort those who are thus cast down.